Library Systems Landscape 2015:
Last August, the libraries of Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, and the University of Chicago Library became the first to launch the Kuali Open Library Environment (OLE), a community-sourced library management system developed by a partnership of research libraries (including Lehigh, Chicago, Indiana University, the University of London, Duke University, North Carolina State University, the University of Florida, the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and Villanova University, PA). Within days of Lehigh and Chicago officially announcing their implementations, Brad Wheeler, chair of the Kuali Foundation Board of Directors, announced in a conference call that the foundation would be creating a for-profit commercial entity (later named KualiCo) to support future development of the Kuali project.
Although the move may have surprised and disappointed open source purists who had watched the project grow since its Mellon grant-funded inception in 2004, commercial development houses such as Equinox, LibLime, and ByWater Solutions have played a vital role in the growth of open source integrated library systems such as Evergreen and Koha during the past decade. These companies have helped speed development of these systems, and by offering training and technical support, maintenance, hosting services, and feature development for hire, these companies make open source systems a viable option for libraries that might otherwise opt for more expensive commercial solutions.
Kuali OLE is just one component of a suite of enterprise solutions intended to replace commercial higher ed software for finance management, student administration, human resources, research management, and other functions. And there were already commercial development houses offering support for some of these components. Notably, the rSmart Group, developer of the OneCampus student services solution, was a member of the Kuali Foundation from the beginning and had built consulting and cloud-hosted software as a service (SaaS) businesses for Kuali finance and research products. In October, the newly formed KualiCo acquired rSmart’s SaaS business and hired the staff and engineers supporting those services. The consulting arm of rSmart was acquired by Navigator Management Partners the same day. [As Tim McGeary, associate university librarian for IT at Kuali foundation member Duke University notes in the comments, HTC Global Services has separately served as the development partner for OLE since 2011, and more recently as an investor in the project].
Arguably, launching KualiCo with the express purpose of speeding the suite’s development efforts and then almost immediately enhancing its hosting capabilities with the acquisition of rSmart was a necessary step for the project, which has depended on a series of large grants from the Mellon Foundation and ongoing development support from a relatively small core of participating institutions.
But as Kenneth Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, noted in a September post on his Digital Tweed blog, hosted by Inside Higher Ed, the move also raises several questions. Most important, where will financing come from, considering that KualiCo has promised not to accept venture capital funding? Green states that despite the profits involved with higher ed enterprise software, the market for these products is small, with Kuali having potential appeal to “the roughly 600 U.S. colleges and universities that enroll more than 10,000 students.”
It may have substantial appeal to that limited market, however, since commercial higher ed enterprise software remains very expensive. In the August conference call announcing the commercial entity that would become KualiCo, Wheeler stated that during the past ten years, Kuali has saved U.S. higher ed institutions “well over $100 million in implementation and recurring costs—likely much, much more,” that 59 institutions were currently in production with Kuali products, and that another 100 use the business continuity product Kuali Ready.